The power of technology is an incredible thing. Ever since its inception, technology has had the power to improve (or hinder) our lives in various ways. Instant messenger is no exception. Though we are currently glued to our screens, making it seem like instant messenger is more prevalent than it’s ever been, these platforms have been around for a long time. Curious about the history of instant messengers? We decided to take a deep dive.
Instant Messaging: The Basics
For those who aren’t exactly sure what we’re referring to here, instant messaging is a form of text-based communication in which two people participate in a conversation over a computer or mobile device within an internet-based chat function. This is different from a “chat”, where the users are part of a public real-time conversation within a larger chat room where everyone present can see everything written by others.
Instant messaging is used by individuals throughout the world for both personal and professional reasons. In our socially-distanced world, instant messaging is more prevalent than ever. Sending these brief written messages helps us all to stay in touch and remain connected. IM has become an important part of how we communicate with loved ones, colleagues, and even brands we care about. Chances are you send dozens of these messages each day without even thinking about it. However, long before WhatsApp and Slack there were other iterations of instant messaging.
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How Far Back do Instant Messengers Go?
You probably didn’t hear the term “instant messenger” until the late nineties, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t around before then. The truth is that instant messaging was invented around 1961, along with the Compatible Time-Sharing System (CTSS). This platform was created at the MIT Computation Center in 1961. At the time, it was revolutionary and allowed up to 30 users to log in at once and correspond with each other through messaging. By 1965, CTSS grew beyond MIT and allowed several hundred users from a number of different colleges to talk to one another. In this way, the platform adopted modern IM-like qualities.
IM capabilities went further in 1971 as a chat function was developed on a government computer network. A computer scientist, Murray Turoff, created IM as part of the Emergency Management Information Systems and Reference Index (EMISARI) for the Office of Emergency Preparedness. Originally, the purpose was to help people to exchange information which would aid the U.S. government during emergencies. One of that system’s first uses was to facilitate communication among government officials, assisting the anti-inflation wage and price control efforts of the Nixon Administration. Users were able to access the system through teletypewriter terminals that were linked to a central computer. This system was used by the US government until 1986. People called the chat function the “party line” and it was often used to replace telephone conferences. All of the party line users needed to log onto the same computer using phone lines and read the text of the chats on the teletype units.
In the 1970’s, the very first public chat software entered the scene. It was called “Talk”, and was created to work within the UNIX operating system. Like the earlier software, it required that users be logged into the same computer in order to use the system. This was actually the predecessor to modern IM systems since users could send a message to anyone else on the system and a note would pop up on the user’s terminal. Many users also used a program that allowed people to determine whether one user or another was present online at the time.
IM rolled out on a larger scale in the nineties. America Online (AOL) was a browser that included a chat function as early as 1988. Users were able to see lists of acquaintances who were also online, called “buddy lists”. In 1997, AOL rolled out AIM, and it flourished. As the internet grew, so did the demand for different software platforms - especially those that facilitated real-time conversation. “Instant messaging” became ubiquitous with the launch of AIM, and as a society, we’ve never looked back.
AIM was the first program to appeal to the masses, but as with most technology, followers soon emerged. Yahoo! launched it’s messenger in 1998, and Pidgin started an open source platform called Gaim around the same time. Microsoft also released a version, called MSN Messenger in 1999, and eventually renamed it to Windows Live Messenger in the early 2000’s. They also added photo sharing, games, and other features that broadened the scope of what people expected from instant messaging. Jabber was the first to offer the ability to communicate through multi-protocol instant messenger, which was a portal for users to chat with friends and access their buddy lists on AIM, Yahoo, and MSN, simultaneously. A similar service called Meebo launched soon after.
All of those programs required logging in to chat. This is pretty different from what we use now, where the messaging platforms are integrated into our daily lives. When instant messaging became ingrained in everyday activities like checking email, everything changed. Now, instant messaging has infiltrated our lives as part of email, social media, or even simply turning on our cell phone. For many people, it’s an important part of their workday as well. For example, in 2005, Google Talk was developed. This gave Gmail users instant access to the chat function as soon as they logged into their account. Instant messaging had gone mainstream! Now, it’s practically invaluable.
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Which Instant Messengers Were Most Popular?
Messaging and chat have evolved to the point where we don’t even consider them forms of instant messaging anymore. Instead, we feel like we are just having conversations with another person. We’ve officially reached the point where there is an entire generation of people who have never lived without instant messaging - what a concept! Which platforms stood the test of time? Which instant messengers were a favorite and which ones were quickly snuffed out? We’re exploring that here.
This decade offers a sort of trick question. There really wasn’t a “popular” instant messenger system because the concept was in its infancy. As we mentioned, there were a few options used in the 60’s and 70’s, for very specific purposes around emergency correspondence and academic endeavors. In 1988, when AOL introduced their chat function, instant messengers were just starting down the path to where we are today. You might say that the most lasting instant messenger to come out of the eighties decade was AOL and their chat function.
Things started to get more serious in the 90’s, with AOL making huge strides and other technology companies starting to look for communication innovations. What was very popular were chat rooms, which were a sort of precursor to instant messaging. There were lots of chat applications like ICQ (which became OkCupid in 1997), Netmeeting, MSN Messenger, and AOL Instant Messenger. MSN and AOL were the most popular options, taking a large share of ICQ and Netmeeting users once they came on the scene. At this time, it was very popular to enter chat rooms with groups of people - strangers from around the world - and start a conversation. It looked a lot different from our 1:1 messaging today, but the technology was a basis for modern instant messaging. AIM offered instant messaging on AOL that was the closest to what we think of as instant messaging. This system stood the test of time and though now dial-up internet is almost (not totally) obsolete, the messaging system hung around for a long time and was many people’s first foray into a messaging system. AIM was definitely the winner from the 90’s era.
Doing a quick search on Wikipedia will provide you a long list of now-defunct instant messaging systems. Once the technology was improved and adopted following the success of AIM, there were a lot of copycats as well as innovators. AOL Instant Messenger actually lasted until 2017. BBM was part of Blackberry devices and was a popular way for Blackberry users to stay in touch with each other. Here are just a few others: ChatON, FireChat, Gizmo5, iChat, Meebo, Mxit, MySpace IM, Odigo Messenger, PowWow, and TalkCity. Even though there were a ton of options to pick from, most people interested in instant messaging had already adopted AIM on AOL. At the same time, Blackberry devices were reaching the height of their popularity. Though concrete numbers on which instant messenger was truly the “most popular”, research shows that around that time, AIM, BBM, any MySpace were all serious contenders.
2010's and beyond
Here is where things get a little tricky. Over the past ten years, the tech scene has exploded (again). It became easier to develop apps for chatting (and everything else) and messaging became more ingrained in other functions, like work. Now, there are such specialized instant messengers that which one is most popular varies by audience. For example, in 2015, there were a variety of apps that were widely used among millennials. These included Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp (now owned by Facebook), Kik, SnapChat, Skype, Viber, and more. The research showed that this group tended to use WhatsApp more than any other app, though SnapChat is also quite trendy. On the other hand, the most commonly used instant messaging for professional purposes include Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Workspace, Monday.com, and Telegram. Just based on numbers alone, WhatsApp and WeChat (explosively popular in China) have the highest number of monthly users. The most common instant messaging app that people think of when they hear “instant messaging” is likely to be WhatsApp.
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New Developments: Instant Messaging From Brands
In the past ten years, the way that both individuals and companies use instant messaging has changed drastically. For a sneak peak at what’s likely to happen to the platform, look no further than texting. At one time texting was solely used as a way to connect with family and friends, and now consumers can receive brand communications regularly (and are usually not weirded out by it). Messaging has grown tremendously in value, because consumers are always connected. In a hyper-digital world, people expect a greater degree of availability and engagement - and that goes for both people and organizations.
According to an article in Forbes, there are 2.52 billion people using messaging apps on mobile. That number is expected to grow to 3 billion shortly. New messaging technology, shifting consumer attitudes toward messaging, and the way that brands leverage tech are evolving the consumer-business relationship. Just like with texting, we can expect that instant messaging will move beyond personal use and start being a way for brands to connect with their audience. Savvy brands will start looking beyond mass communications and find other ways to capitalize on messaging to develop phone-based relationships with customers. Along with that, consumers will increasingly rely on messaging. Many brands made it more convenient than ever to message them during the pandemic, and people don’t want to give up that convenience. For better or worse, people have gotten used to non-conversational interactions and like being able to communicate from their devices.
On the business side, if companies want to take advantage of these advances in instant messaging, they need to ensure that consumers (or potential consumers) are “opted in”. Just because someone opts in to one form of communication, it doesn’t mean they agree to be messaged on their device. For example, just because someone opted into emails, it doesn’t mean that they want to get texts, Furthermore, just because they opted in at one time doesn’t mean they’ll stay opted in - they could always unsubscribe or block your communications. This means that marketers need to consider what actually interests people and encourages engagement and go beyond blanket promotional messages. Personalization will be key, as people expect highly curated information that is specific to them (for example, a note on products that complement something they just bought). Chat apps need to be used to cultivate more personal relationships with customers, and brands need to work on establishing omni channel messaging across their entire business.
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What the Future Holds for Instant Messaging
There are a few trends emerging in the world of instant messaging. Keep an eye on the landscape to watch the following developments:
- An emphasis on privacy and security. Cybercrime and fraud continue to grow, and internet users rightly have concerns. Increasingly, things like data security are becoming more important to consumers as well as the companies that cater to them. Look for features like end-to-end encryption for personal conversations and calls, a secure HTTPS connection and rigorous verification procedures. Though some messaging apps are already focused on these areas, it will be the norm in the future.
- Integrations will expand. Some instant messenger platforms will work on growing their own capabilities, while others will focus on developing more integrations with other technology. Integrations will allow instant messengers to provide more benefits to users, while increasing their own value. Right now, some innovative integrations allow users to order food or taxis online, shop with virtual assistants, facilitate peer-to-peer payments or money transfers, and book travel like flights or hotels. Expect messaging systems to look for more ways to integrate with and streamline the other technology you use.
- Conversational commerce. This refers to the use of messengers by businesses to get sales. It involves enabling, conducting, and enticing sales across all of the stages in a customer journey. Activities like assisting potential consumers with questions and allowing customers to purchase products without leaving the chat app encourage messaging to be a valuable part of the overall buying process.
- Millennials should expect more marketing. Many experts view instant messaging as the future, and it’s hugely popular with certain demographics - including millennials. As such, people in this range in particular should be prepared for more promotional material coming their way. Further along in the article, we will get into the ways that companies can and will begin taking advantage of instant messaging platforms to grow their brands. In the meantime, people - particularly millennials - should expect to see more brand-based communications from companies they are interested in.
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Additionally, people are more invested in streamlining their technology use than ever before. They want to get more out of the apps they already use. People may need to choose between messaging apps, but they are unlikely to give them up altogether. That’s why it’s important to use platforms that can help you to use various technologies together, saving time and energy. Shift is one example. The workstation for productive people, Shift is a desktop app that helps users to streamline and collaborate across channels and workflows. Simply add all of the apps that you use most to Shift, and then create your ideal digital workspace. Take a tour of Shift today.